Forced by the new coronavirus, Iran took the tiniest of steps to placate global advocacy for religious freedom.
A temporary release of about 85,000 prisoners to curb the spread of COVID-19 disease included Ramiel Bet Tamraz, an Assyrian Christian serving a four-month sentence for holding illegal church meetings.
He was one of seven Christians set free, some on bail.
The release—which also pardoned 10,000 prisoners in advance of this past weekend’s celebration of Nowruz, the Persian new year—did not include four Christians recently granted a retrial.
Ramiel’s father Victor was the pastor of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church of Tehran until 2009, when it was shut down by the government for holding services in Farsi, the Iranian national language. Arrested in 2014 for conducting services at home, in 2017 he was given a 10-year jail sentence. Released earlier on bail with his wife Shamiram, they are awaiting the outcome of court appeals.
Ramiel’s sister Dabrina has advocated for her family all the way to the White House.
“Raising awareness always helps,” she told CT, prior to her brother’s release. “When the US and international bodies speak out and address persecuted Christians, they have an enormous amount of influence.”
According to the latest annual report of violations against Christians in Iran, 17 believers ended 2019 in prison on account of their faith. Culled from public statistics describing sentences from 4 months to 10 years, the report—released in January and jointly produced by Open Doors, Article 18, Middle East Concern, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide—warned the true number could be much higher.
Compared to those who decline advocacy, Dabrina said that international attention can result in better treatment in prison and the dropping of charges. She believes this is one reason her parents’ court sessions keep getting delayed.
“Putting them in prison will cost them a lot,” she said.
“They will have to give answers for why they put in prison a 65-year-old licensed pastor, from a Christian background.”
Iran’s constitution establishes Shiite Islam as the official religion. But it also guarantees freedom of religion for official religious minorities: Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews.
Christians number 117,700, according to government statistics, out of a population of 83 million.
Estimates for converts to Christianity, however, range from 300,000 to 1 million, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Its latest report states that the law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs, and that apostasy is a crime punishable by death—as is proselytization.
But even for converts, advocacy helps. Dabrina highlighted the example of Mary (born Fatemeh) Mohammedi, a 19-year-old would-be university student, denied her education by the regime. She was arrested in January, protesting the Iranian government for covering up the accidental downing of a civilian aircraft in the response to US killing of Qassem Soleimani.
Released prior to the coronavirus measure, her court hearing may have been pushed back because of the outbreak.
But prior to this, reports say Mohammedi was beaten and forced to sit in the cold in front of the toilets. Dabrina said that female prisoners especially need advocacy, as they are more likely to face ill treatment.
Practiced by only 21 percent of countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, such imprisonment of women for religious reasons is rare in the world, according to Open Doors’s 2020 Gender-Specific Religious Persecution Report.
But the advocacy group’s latest Iran dossier states the number has risen, once the government began arresting ordinary house church members, rather than just leaders.
“The behavior of the security forces was very aggressive and violent,” one woman told Open Doors, describing a raid. “They treated us, especially women, as if they were treating a bunch of prostitutes.”
Mohammedi has been a particular bother to the government, as a rare example of an advocate for Christians within Iran. Following an “invitation” to Christians by the intelligence minister to explain why they converted from Islam, she wrote him an open letter.
Mohammedi accused the minister of violating the constitution, which states “no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”
But she is not the only one protesting.
From within prison, Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh wrote an open letter questioning the government narrative of conversion being against national security.
“Would it be even possible for a committed Christian,” he wrote, noting the biblical injunction to submit to government, “who was born and raised in Iran and whose forefathers lived in this land for thousands of years, to act against the national security of his own country?”
Serving a 10-year sentence for establishing house churches, Gol-Tapeh’s length of term made him ineligible for the coronavirus release.
Mansour Borji, director of Article 18, hopes to multiply their examples. Also a board member of SAT-7 PARS, Borji has appeared on the Christian satellite network to help Iranians understand their universal right to freedom of religion and belief.
“Iranians here have not been raised with an understanding of what their rights are, only their duties,” he said. “What Iran is doing to deny their citizens these rights is illegal.”
Borji recognized the freedom-limiting stipulations in the Iranian civil code. But he pushed back on the apostasy charge, noting that Shiite jurisprudence is not uniform about the death penalty.
Yet he stated clearly that the Iranian government is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These United Nations documents technically govern all civil law, he said, a message he emphasizes on SAT-7.
“Now, when accused Christian converts go before a prosecutor, they can speak without feeling like a criminal,” Borji said. “It gives them mental stamina and the moral high ground.
“They can say, ‘I know it is my legal right to choose.’”
SAT-7 PARS began broadcasting in 2006, and now reaches 2 million Farsi speakers in Iran and neighboring countries. Half of these are under 25 years old.
In addition to traditional religious broadcasting, SAT-7 PARS also tackles sensitive social issues. These have included Female Genital Mutilation (rare among Iran’s Shiite Muslim majority, more prevalent among its Sunni minority) and domestic abuse (affecting up to 2 in 3 Iranian women).
But following discussions with the UN and European Union, in 2018 SAT-7 partnered with the Nordic Ecumenical Network on International Freedom of Religion and Belief to promote the concept across all its stations—including Arabic and Turkish.
The first in this series of eight educational videos has been broadcast in Farsi. The rest are currently being translated.
Yet from Tehran, Sebouh Sarkissian, archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church, counsels outsiders to respect the freedom of religion already present.
“Christians are allowed to celebrate and practice their religion,” he said. “We live in a period of mutual respect, accepting each other as we are.
“But if freedom means that we can evangelize Iranians, this is forbidden.”
No Christian has ever been arrested for practicing his faith, Sarkissian said, only for trying to convert Muslims.
His church numbers between 75,000 and 85,000 ethnic Armenian citizens of Iran, who worship freely—in their own language—in about 25 churches. They host Bible studies and run Sunday schools.
Tehran also boasts 16 Armenian schools, where in addition to the standard curriculum they teach Christianity alongside Armenian history and language.
Two of five parliament seats (out of 290) reserved for religious minorities are assigned to Armenian Christians.
The Iranian government invites church leaders to official events, honors Christmas, and allows them to light the streets around the church for Easter, he said.
Sarkissian is a member of the SAT-7 international board, and appreciates how the network brings the gospel into Farsi-speaking Christian homes. Many Armenians do not speak their original language well.
But consistent with their language of liturgy, the Orthodox tell religious inquirers that theirs is an Armenian church.
“People in general are free to choose their own religion,” Sarkissian said. “But here, the religion of the state is Islam and all Muslims must observe it.
“Conversion is not encouraged; they should remain in their faith.”
Early in her faith journey, Mohammedi cried when a priest in one of Iran’s traditional churches turned her away.
She attributed this to government oppression.
“They put people under pressure,” she told Article 18. “And so if people want to know about Christianity, they say nothing, because it’s too dangerous.”
This is not limited to the Orthodox, however. Reza Jafari began exploring Christianity in a Farsi service of an Assyrian Evangelical Church in Tehran, which under a wave of government pressure asked them to stop attending.
Now a SAT-7 PARS presenter based in Cyprus, his weekly 90-minute show Signal features testimonies of others who have accepted Christ.
Jafari intends it to be an encouragement, especially to scattered believers.
Sharing the convictions of Borji and Mohammedi without the specific focus on religious freedom, he also hopes to normalize the concept of following Jesus.
“Sometimes fanatic Muslims think we are secret agents,” Jafari said.
“We want Iranians to see we are just like them, and not a different species.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of ethnic Armenian citizens of Iran. There are 75,000–85,000, not 750,000–850,000.